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Johnny Depp Turns 50

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Tomorrow, the thoroughly original, impossibly talented Johnny Depp hits the milestone age of 50.

Does this mean he's actually middle-aged? No, it can't be.

After all, part of this unique actor's enduring charm is his child-like quality, his willingness to dress up and be silly.

But behind that, there's always been a serious foundation built on focus, grit and ambition. His firm intention from the start was not to rely on his good looks, but use his intelligence, imagination and -- for want of a better word -- fearlessness to become a highly respected actor known for taking chances on wild, idiosyncratic roles.

Those risks have sometimes paid off, sometimes not. But one has to admire the actor who takes them, as long as they are fairly well calculated. His have been.

Life did not start out smoothly for him. Born in Kentucky, the youngest of four kids, his childhood was unsettled and peripatetic. Partly as a result, Johnny was a sensitive, somewhat solitary, often troubled child. An indifferent student, he dropped out of high school a year after his parents divorced. He was 15.

He'd obviously heard The Byrds sing "So You Wanna Be a Rock'n'Roll Star?" because that became his immediate goal. And he and his band actually made some headway, but as so often happens, split up before signing a record deal.

In early '80s Hollywood, through his then-wife (make-up artist Lori-Anne Allison), Johnny met Nic Cage, who told him he should act. His striking good looks must have helped, but again, there was more to it. He was a natural.

First Depp got noticed in two featured roles in hit movies: 1984's A Nightmare On Elm Street and 1986's Platoon. Next came TV stardom and teen heartthrob status on 1987's 21 Jump Street.

And then the Gods really smiled on him. Johnny met Tim Burton. Over time, their shared off-the-wall sensibility would help shape the actor's distinctive screen persona. Johnny would start out as Burton's muse, and branch out from there. But then he would often return to where he started.

Before Johnny experienced serious blockbuster status with the endless Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, he was often referred to as an actor who made weird films that made no money. Depp countered that the studios did not understand the material he chose, or know how to market it. He also affirmed that he picked roles and films that intrigued him, regardless of box-office potential.

This is the Johnny Depp I like and respect, which begs the question: what keeps him coming back to play Jack Sparrow? (Tell me it's not just the green stuff.)

And though I also admire his willingness and ability to go gleefully over-the-top, my own Depp short list is comprised of Johnny's quieter, subtler outings.

(For instance, though many will disagree, I felt he was off in Terry Gilliam's frenetic, outsize Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas- more like a jazzed-up cartoon character out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit than his rough, raw, profane real-life friend, "gonzo" journalist Hunter Thompson.)

Fifty years old is yesterday's forty. Johnny Depp has a lot more to do, and he is only getting better with time. Perhaps after this next "Pirates" outing, he might choose to hang up his trusty sword, and return to smaller, smarter films like the ones listed below.

Here's hoping. In the meantime, happy birthday, Johnny- and thanks for the memories.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)- In Tim Burton's melancholy parable about conformity and the pain of being different, Johnny plays the creation of an inventor who dies too soon. Instead of hands, this gentle creature gets fitted with sharp blades. Under these conditions, can misfit Edward ever find love and happiness?

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)- Johnny is title character Gilbert, a fatherless young man who presides over a highly dysfunctional family. Then finally he gets a shot at love and happiness. Will he take it? Look for a winning early turn by child actor Leonardo di Caprio in this sweet, touching, original film from Lasse Hallstrom.

Ed Wood (1994)- Reteamed with Tim Burton, Depp feels made for the role of the grade Z filmmaker who brought us, among other campy dreck, the immortally bad Plan 9 From Outer Space. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi.

Donnie Brasco (1997)- Johnny plays an undercover cop assigned to penetrate the local mob who does so by befriending a low-level hood. Based on a true story, this paired Depp with Al Pacino. Feeding off each other, both actors are superlative.

Finding Neverland (2004)- Johnny portrays "Peter Pan" author J.M Barrie with subtlety and finesse in this charming period picture, and got an Oscar nod for it. Co-star Kate Winslet is luminous as well. (In future, he should take more roles like this one- assuming any ever come up again!)

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